Despite his early successes, McNally itched to do something more meaningful. “I always felt that what I was doing was of no consequence,” he says, “as it probably isn’t, and that I could do without restaurants and the restaurant business. I didn’t have any sense of achievement.”
In the late eighties, he set out to make movies. His first, End of the Night, about a man whose life unravels while his wife is pregnant, was chosen as one of twenty films shown at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. In 1989, he moved to Paris with his family (he and Lynn Wagenknecht by that point had a son, Harry, and two daughters, Sophie and Isabelle) and wrote and directed another art-house movie, Far From Berlin, starring Armin-Mueller Stahl. He also wrote and sold a third script, Fidelity. But today he’s self-conscious about the movies, which he hasn’t watched in more than fifteen years.
“I thought there was some higher calling, something more important, about making films,” McNally says, “and that I would feel better about myself if I made a film. Maybe I was disillusioned. Very little makes me feel better about myself, that’s what I realized.”
While McNally was in Germany making the second film, his marriage to Wagenknecht fell apart. With three children, and intertwined business interests, the couple’s divorce was especially taxing. McNally ended up selling the Odeon, Luxembourg, and Nell’s to Wagenknecht, keeping only Lucky Strike. With the money he got from selling the restaurants, he bought four acres on Martha’s Vineyard, and spent the next year renovating the house on the property. “It was kind of therapeutic, because it was really some form of reconstruction of my inner life after being very quite devastated by divorce.”
Losing his restaurants made McNally appreciate them finally. “I never, ever before thought the Odeon was such a good place,” he says. “And when I went back in for the first time, six months after my divorce, I thought how lucky the person must have been to have owned this place.”
In 1996, for the first time in seven years, he opened a new place, Pravda, a Russian Constructivist–inspired bar in a Nolita basement, with investments from friends including Lorne Michaels and Ian Schrager. It’s the only project Schrager has ever invested in that wasn’t his own. “Keith is really one of the two people in this business, in the entire world, that I most respect,” Schrager says (the other is Jean-Louis Costes, in Paris). Pravda showed that McNally could still attract the old crowd. But it was the following year that he would open what would arguably be his biggest hit: Balthazar, with its soaring ceilings, neck-craning celebrity population, and peerless frites. McNally followed Balthazar with two more successes, Pastis and Schiller’s Liquor Bar.
In an exceptionally fickle industry, McNally’s places have shown a remarkable ability to age gracefully, evolving from restaurants-of-the-minute into enduring standards. Of the ten places he has opened in the last 30 years, nine are still around (Nell’s, his only club, is the one McNally-sired place that ever closed, and it lasted an improbable eighteen years). “He’s never really fallen into the celebrity trap,” says Anna Wintour. “Ralph Lauren has always said this to me, that you can’t be too hot or too cold, and I think Keith comes from that same sensibility. He realizes that the caravan can pass on, if it becomes too much the place to go, and that you have to keep—and I don’t mean to say this in a derogatory way at all, but—the real people happy at the same time, because they’re the ones that are going to keep coming back.”
McNally tries to build his restaurants, he says, in such a way that he can look at them, five years after they open, and know that he’d build them in exactly the same way if he had to do it over again. Not that there haven’t been missteps. “I cringe at the word ‘design,’ ” he says. “There are certain things in my restaurants that are overdesigned. Not many, I think, but there are some that I’m very embarrassed by. But I’m not going to say what they are.”
Although many have swooned over McNally’s transporting, letter-perfect re-creations of the bistro and brasserie, some critics have at times found his restaurants to cross the line from knowing, loving reproduction into the realm of pastiche, simulacrum, and cliché. Morandi, his first Italian restaurant, was also the first of his places to draw almost uniformly critical reviews (including from this magazine’s Adam Platt). In the restaurant’s decorative fiascoes of Chianti and greatest-hits menu (fritto misto, vitello tonnato), the Times’ Bruni saw “Italy as theme park” and asked: “Is this tribute or burlesque?” McNally reacted by reading every review Bruni had ever written—some 150, at that point—doing a statistical analysis of Bruni’s treatment of female chefs, and penning an open letter positing that sexism might play a role in his criticism. (Morandi’s then-chef was a woman.) “I lost a lot of respect for Keith McNally when he did that,” Bruni says. “For a restaurateur to brand the critic a sexist or a misogynist seems like a very small-minded, out-of-bounds way to strike back.”